Social norms and sexual misconduct

(featured image credit: geralt)

If how we behave is motivated and moderated by what is socially desirable and acceptable, how can this be squared with the unending stream of allegations of inappropriate behaviour?

Social norms influence how we make choices. We are social beings, so it is unsurprising that we take our cues from others, and from how they respond to what we do. We want to belong and identify with our preferred social groups, and behaving in such a way that we conform to the group’s norms helps us do that.

Strong power or weak power?

Understandably, social scientists have been seeking to use social norms as an instrument to change people’s behaviour. In 2008, Noah Goldstein, Robert Cialdini and Vladas Griskevicius looked at how different messages placed in hotel bathrooms affected the reuse of towels. Compared with a standard message (use your towels again, and save lots of water and energy), one that pointed out that 75% of hotel guests reused their towels led to a 20% increase in towel reuse. If the message referred to the guests that had stayed in the same room, the increase was more than 30%.


…if you can be bothered. (source: A Room with a Viewpoint)

Social norms are now prominent in the toolkit of behaviouralists – it is represented by the ‘S’ in the British Behavioural Insights Team’s EAST framework for example.

But all this makes you wonder to what extent social norms are implicated in the unending string of allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence, in the entertainment industry, in politics, in sports, and in workplaces everywhere.  If such behaviour is not acceptable, how come it is still happening?

Social norms are of course not black and white. Even the most powerful message in the hotel bathroom did not make 100% of the guests reuse their towels. Some people simply not have been be engaged enough, or distracted. Others may have had (in their eyes) good reasons to require new towels perhaps they were especially sweaty and grubby before showering, or they soiled the towels in some unspeakable way).

Norms influence our behaviour, but they generally don’t fully determine it. We rarely treat them as absolute and unconditional, and they compete with other factors. So we tend to be rather flexible in applying norms, even the ones we hold high, and we may trade off adherence against other considerations. If we are normally a well behaved driver who stops before an amber light and sticks to the prevailing urban speed limit, we may justify deviating from that norm and turning into a rather more aggressive driver when we’re late to get to the airport and catch the last flight.

And perhaps some people just believe that certain norms don’t apply to them – in the hotel bathroom, as in their relationships with co-workers. Like a medieval potentate who, not content with the taxes he raises on the meagre harvest of his serfs, still feels entitled to grab the best looking apple or carrot they’re taking to market, take a bite and then casually and ostentatively throw it away, so they feel entitled to ignore the rights and dignity of those over whom they have power.

Social norms have no grip on people who are convinced they don’t apply to them.

The norm of silence

But social norms appear in more than one way in this context. For a long time, the women and men at the receiving end of sexual harassment and sexual violence were stuck in a social norm in which victims remained silent. The behaviour of the perpetrators may have been unacceptable, but it was, de facto, accepted.

The informal #metoo movement may just be the catalyst that is needed. When victims feel it is OK speak out, the norm of silence is starting to crumble.


It should be *us* too. (photo: surdumihail)

But it’s not just among the victims that there is a need for a change in social norms. Those of us who are, thankfully, not victims, but witnesses are also stuck in social norms. We may find sexual harassment and sexual violence unacceptable, but do we really, unequivocally refuse to accept it? We’re often subject to a conflict of norms: we see someone do something that is not acceptable, but it turns out to be a friend or a relative, and ‘we are not a grass’, or ‘boys will be boys’. Or we turn a blind eye because we don’t want to get involved, or we appease ourselves with the thought that it’s always been like this.


We should change our own norm of silence too. Sometimes there is no room for trade-offs. If behaviour is unacceptable, we should not tolerate it or seek to justify it.

Such social norms may not eradicate the behaviour of sexual predators. But they will more and more limit their ability to intimidate and attack others. And it is down to every single one of us to help them become the new norm.


About koenfucius

Wisdom or koenfusion? Maybe the difference is not that big.
This entry was posted in Behavioural economics, Cognitive biases and fallacies, Morality and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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